Recent clashes and the continued standoff between China and India, at the roof of the world, has invited the attention of many scholars from different parts of the world. There are many speculations regarding the future course of actions taken by both countries. While it is clear that India has increased its deployment in the region to counter Chinese aggression, there is a long term strategic goal which China seeks to fulfil by increasing the tensions along the LAC. Perhaps, the Chinese wish for a decreased Indian presence and diversion of India’s strategic attention to the key area of Indo-Pacific. Naturally, when the situation escalates along the LAC, the attention and priority immediately shift to the land border, thereby creating space for the Chinese to operate with relatively more freedom in the Indo-Pacific. China, along with Pakistan, is keen to keep India engaged in the continental border issues, keeping Indian focus away from the Indo-Pacific.
China is well aware of the geographical advantage that India has given India’s central position jutting into the Indian Ocean. Strategic thinker KM Pannikar has mentioned Indian primacy in the Indian Ocean in his book, as a factor for helping the British to maintain their hegemony in the Indian Ocean and the littoral countries. They could govern areas from West Asia to Malacca Strait with India as their main base. Accounts of Imperial generals and the battles fought for the control of the subcontinent explains the strategic advantage of India due to its geography. The Chinese thinkers are well acquainted with this fact and that is one of the many reasons why India concerns them.
Apart from the geographical advantage that worries the Chinese, India’s growing partnerships with countries like the US, Japan, Vietnam, Australia alarms Beijing. India and the US have signed the LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Understanding), and COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement). With LEMOA made operational, India can conduct sustained monitoring and support operations along with the support of US bases in the Indo-Pacific. The Malabar exercise conducted between India, US, Japan is yet another irritant for China. India is also considering the sale of BrahMos missiles to Vietnam, which could help Vietnam boost its defence in the South China Sea. The growing popularity, strategic embrace by countries and greater salience to the term Indo-Pacific is seen as by the Chinese as a way to contain them. With such actions in place, China feels anxious and insecure regarding the Indo-Pacific.
As such, China’s actions along the LAC are diversionary tactics to reduce Indian focus from Indo-Pacific. Continued conflict situation along India’s land borders often affects India’s naval budget. The bulk of the funds get diverted to the Army and Air Force as they are the critical components for combat in the high altitude region. For instance, the total budget allocation for the Navy from the defence budget rose from 4% in 1950-51 budget to 12.7% in 1959-60. But following the 1962 war with China, the naval share dropped to 4% in 1964-65 budget. This is an anticipated response, given the limited resources available and huge expanses of territory to govern. China is aware of this fact and tries to work based on this experience to divert Indian attention from the strategic Indo-Pacific. India’s preoccupation with land-based frontiers post-Independence has kept Indian Navy confined to a limited budget. Enhanced budget allocation to the Navy is needed to bolster its role and capabilities in the Indian Ocean Region. According to Admiral (retd.) Karambir Singh, Navy’s budget share has reduced from 18% in 2012-13 to 13% in 2019-20. This reduction has put huge pressure on the modernisation plan of the Indian Navy, leading to reduction of the naval capabilities. For instance, instead of 3 aircraft carriers (planned), the Indian Navy is working with 2 functional and one operational aircraft carriers. Instead of 10 Kamov helicopters (planned), IN plans on to go with 6. The percentage of the capital budget of the Navy to total defence budget has declined substantively. A Standing Committee observed that the number of ships and submarines was 138 and 235 in 2017 which reduced to 136 and 219 respectively in 2019. When the data on budget allocation from 2011-2019 is graphically presented, it shows an inconsistent allocation to the navy, without any steady rise. While India is one of the highest spenders on defence expenditure, more than half of the budgetary allowance goes towards salaries and pensions. Less than half of the budget is allocated for modernisation drive and Navy always gets the smallest chunk. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the economy in a negative way. This would imply a reduced defence expenditure in the next financial year, thereby reducing the budgetary allocation to the navy. With the extraordinary escalation along the LAC, coupled with COVID-19, it would be interesting to see how the naval budgetary allocation would be impacted.
As the Chinese Navy is increasing its footprint over the Indo-Pacific, Indian Navy must undertake rapid modernisation plans in order to counter the Chinese threat.
China has strategized and exploited India based on India’s continental bias. While our land frontiers are important, equal importance must be given to our oceans as well. Perhaps, response to Chinese aggression on land can be given by Indian action at sea, particularly by jeopardising their critical SLOCs. Indian Naval budgetary allocations, especially for capital outlay have to be increased in order to have an increased presence in the Indo-Pacific. Given, India’s geographical advantage and its strategic relations with the key players, India can definitely play a greater role in the region.
** The author is currently an intern in KIIPS. He is an undergraduate student pursuing graduation in the field of Political Science and Economics from St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi.**